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'On death penalty, state bucks the trend'

Last modified: 12/31/2010 12:00:00 AM
Tomorrow is International Death Penalty Abolition Day. At this moment, it is worth taking a look at where the United States and New Hampshire stand on this important issue and where we might be headed.

On Dec. 22 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Of the member states, 109 voted in favor of the resolution, 41 voted against it, and 35 abstained. This underscores the worldwide trend toward abolition of the death penalty. When the United Nations was founded in 1945, only eight states had abolished the death penalty. Today 136 out of the 192 member states have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.

Where did the United States stand? We cast our lot with countries like Myanmar and voted 'No.'

Nonetheless, the inexorable march toward abolition is apparent even in the United States. According to a recent report issued by the Death Penalty Information Center, executions in the United States have dropped by more than 50 percent in the last decade. Only 12 states carried out executions in the last year, mostly in the South, and only seven states carried out more than one execution, with Texas, the death penalty capital, leading the way with 17.

The United States seems to be losing its appetite for capital punishment, even in Texas. In 1999, 48 people were sentenced to death in Texas. By dramatic comparison, last year eight people were sentenced to death.

What about New Hampshire? On its face, our state seems to be bucking the trend. While the number of death penalty prosecutions nationwide decreased in the last decade, New Hampshire had two active capital prosecutions for this first time in recent history. As a result New Hampshire claims its first death row inmate in over a half century.

The cost of these prosecutions was staggering, both in terms of resources and money. In December, the New Hampshire Commission to Study the Death Penalty issued its final report after a year of hearings and study. The report makes fascinating reading. It can be found at the commission's webpage, gencourt.state.nh.us/statstudcomm/reports/2009.pdf.

Although a closely divided panel recommended that we retain the death penalty, one point of agreement among all members of the commission was that it costs much more, by some estimates up to 10 times more, to pursue a death penalty prosecution than a first-degree murder charge even when a conviction results in a sentence of life without parole.

Why the differential?

It costs more to impanel a 'death qualified' jury than a standard jury. The clerk of Hillsborough County Superior Court told the commission it typically takes 3« days to impanel a jury in a first-degree murder trial, but it took 17 days to impanel the jury in the Michael Addison case. The clerk generally calls 300 potential jurors to a first-degree murder case but called 1,200 in Addison's. The average length of a trial in a first-degree murder case is 6« days. The Addison case took 36 days. In an era when our courts are understaffed and underfunded, it is easy to see the impact of this prolonged litigation.

The decision to pursue two capital prosecutions cost the taxpayers over $4 million, and that cost will continue to rise with years of appeals looming in the Addison case. Finally, if and when Addison's sentence is carried out, New Hampshire will have to build a death chamber. The estimated cost of that is $1.7 million.

The death penalty is not only bloated, it is also unnecessary and counterproductive. Many victims testified before the commission. They had a near universal message: The death penalty does not bring 'closure'; in fact, the seemingly endless court hearings keep wounds fresh.

On International Death Penalty Abolition Day, I urge you to reflect upon the death penalty in our country and our state.

(Barbara Keshen of Concord is staff attorney for the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union.)


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